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Obama: VA Misconduct Will Not Be Tolerated

Obama: VA Misconduct Will Not Be Tolerated

By Alexis Simendinger - May 22, 2014

President Obama vowed Wednesday to hold accountable any personnel, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, for management mistakes, plus what the president called allegations of “cooking the books” inside a health delivery system that has more than 270,000 employees.

“When I heard allegations of misconduct -- any misconduct, whether it's allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books -- I will not stand for it, not as commander in chief, but also not as an American,” Obama said, his voice rising as he emphasized his displeasure.

“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period.”

Obama spoke for 20 minutes in the White House briefing room after meeting privately with Shinseki. The president defended his administration’s overall record of addressing decades-long challenges at the VA, including delays in disability benefits, homelessness among veterans, and providing health care to nearly 6 million beneficiaries. Noting that he served on the Veterans Affairs Committee in the Senate, the president added, “Taking care of veterans and their families has been one of the causes of my presidency.”

Hoping to quiet criticism that his supervision of the VA has been flawed, Obama suggested that neither he nor Shinseki, a retired four-star general, were aware until recent accounts surfaced that there may have been falsifications of appointment records -- alleged adaptations made by personnel in multiple locations and designed to mask VA hospital and clinic wait times.

If VA personnel knew of falsifications and did not pass that information up the chain to him or the secretary, Obama said he wants to know why, as well as how resources could shorten delays in care and how the VA health system and its management should be improved.

The president established a brisk timeline for the department’s own fact-finding, and broadened a White House review of the VA’s health system issues, which he assigned to a “trusted” aide, Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, described as the president’s “eyes and ears.” Nabors flew to Arizona Wednesday as part of his assignment, and Obama said he wanted his aide’s recommendations by June.

While the VA inspector general’s probe may not conclude until August, the president heard an update Wednesday from Shinseki about the secretary’s own parallel probe, and said he wants preliminary findings by next week from the secretary about all VA health facilities. In the meantime, Nabors, whose father, a retired Army general, once served with Shinseki, is expected to diagnose the most pressing management vulnerabilities inside the Veterans Health Administration.

The president’s spokesman on Tuesday denied there was any appearance of political interference in tasking a loyal Obama adviser to dig into the operations of a complex federal health system accused of illegality, liability and poor management -- concurrent with a VA inspector general investigation.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called again for “an independent investigation,” adding, “We all deserve more from our president.” He accused the administration of possessing knowledge even before the recent media disclosures about the VA’s health system problems, including reports of falsified records, deaths attributable to long delays in care, and federal bonuses paid to Phoenix-based department employees who have been implicated.

Obama signaled his disappointment that Shinseki, whom he praised for his distinguished accomplishments during a long career, may not surmount the calls from lawmakers and advocacy groups for management changes at the top. Obama did not appear at the White House accompanied by the secretary, and neither the president nor his spokesman, Jay Carney, would say if Shinseki offered his resignation.

When asked if the secretary had offered to step down, the president replied, “I know that Ric's attitude is, if he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he's let our veterans down, then I'm sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve. At this stage, Ric is committed to solving the problem and working with us to do it.”

The president’s comments about Shinseki were somber.

“If you ask me, you know, how do I think Ric Shinseki has performed overall, I would say that on homelessness, on the 9/11 GI Bill, on working with us to reduce the [disability claims] backlog across the board, he has put his heart and soul into this thing and he has taken it very seriously,” Obama continued. “But I said it to him today, I want to see, you know, what the results of these reports are, and there is going to be accountability. And I'm going to expect, even before the reports are done, that we are seeing significant improvement in terms of how the admissions process takes place in all of our VA health care facilities.”

Obama waited three weeks to publicly address a controversy that has infuriated Democratic lawmakers and liberal supporters as well as Republican critics and veterans groups. With his job approval rating at 44 percent, and his embrace of the military and veterans called into question, the president sought to demonstrate both “action” and personal outrage.

But even as he spoke of preliminary VA findings and reports ordered to his desk ASAP, the president and his White House team played for time. The controversy threatens to hobble Obama and members of his party politically, and could attract sustained media attention and congressional oversight for months during a midterm election year.

Late on Wednesday, the House passed a measure designed to streamline employee firings at the Veterans Administration. The White House did not openly oppose the legislation but said Obama directed Shinseki to use all available authority to make appropriate personnel changes. House Speaker John Boehner called on the president to urge Senate Democrats to pass the measure. "Every day without action is another day we risk more veterans being trapped in a broken system,” he said in a statement.   

“We have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened,” the president repeated. “Our veterans deserve to know the facts. Their families deserve to know the facts. Once we know the facts, I assure you, if there is misconduct, it will be punished.”

CNN reported in April that a former VA clinic director, Dr. Sam Foote, alleged that as many as 40 patients may have died while the Phoenix VA Health Care System -- which serves about 80,000 veterans at a hospital and satellite clinics -- wrestled with chronic backlogs and delayed care. Foote described working off two patient appointment lists, one shared with Washington that showed prompt care, and an actual patient log that included wait times of as long as a year.

Congressional testimony from the acting VA inspector general last week refuted the cause-and-effect allegations tied to those 40 deaths, and Obama appeared to accept that assessment Wednesday. “The IG indicated that he did not see a link between the wait[s], and them [veteran patients] actually dying,” he told reporters. “That does not excuse the fact that the wait times in general are too long in some facilities.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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